Living in the shadow of death may enhance the gift of life.
In 2006, Taylor (Religion/Columbia Univ.; Speed Limits: Where Time Went and Why We Have So Little Left, 2014, etc.) developed an infection after a biopsy, resulting in septic shock that took a month to stabilize; five months later, he underwent surgery for cancer. That life-threatening experience, he reflects, was like “dying without dying,” and the last 10 years have seemed like “life after death for me,” a reprieve that made him feel unexpectedly liberated. Trying to make sense of the experience, he turned to writers whose works he has read, taught, and cherished during his long career. The result is an erudite intellectual autobiography focused on 11 writers’ insights about the end of life: several (Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, and Freud) committed suicide; two (Nietzsche, Poe) died in delirium; and two (Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida) are likely to be unfamiliar to readers without a background in philosophy. Kierkegaard, Melville, and Thoreau round out the cast. None could be characterized as bright spirits but rather echo the abiding depression that Taylor believes he inherited from his mother. “In one way or another,” he admits, “everything I have written over the years has been an effort to overcome the melancholy of unhappy consciousness.” From his father, however, a science teacher, poet, and artist, he inherited an uplifting love of nature and artistic talent. Living in New England, Taylor senses the ghosts of Melville and Thoreau close at hand. As he watches the sun rise each morning over the Berkshires, he is struck by the moment before light appears and “reality remains virtual and all things seem possible.” As an artist, “exploring ways of writing without words,” he has created large-scale land art from steel, stone, and bone that depict letters from the signatures of Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. They stand as impressive homages to a trinity of beloved philosophers. Taylor’s personal recollections emerge as the most engaging passages, punctuating analyses of often challenging works.
A learned meditation on mortality.